The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5: an oral history
The Miners’ Strike of 1984 was a turning point in British history. Miners left their pits to fight the attempt of the Thatcher government to close the collieries, break the miners’ union and the labour movement in general, and open the way to a free market economy in which deregulated financial capitalism would be set free by the Big Bang of 1986. The full force of the police, the courts and the media were mobilised to defeat the miners, culminating with the battle of Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Thousands of miners were arrested, fined, imprisoned or sacked, some never to work again.
Not long into the strike the slogan was invented, ‘close a pit, kill a community’. The miners – an all-male occupation – were powerfully backed by their wives, who saw clearly that without the pits there was little hope for their children’s future or the viability of the mining community. They set up support groups to run soup kitchens and put together food parcels for striking miner’s families, raising money from local pubs and clubs and then further afield, nationally and later internationally. Behind the women were politically active members of the local community and country as a whole, including Greenham Common women and gay and lesbian activists, who saw this struggle as a tipping point between social democracy, civil liberties and the welfare state and of the one hand, and on the other, neoliberalism, authoritarianism and austerity.
The defeat of the strike led very quickly to the closure of most coal mines, a general deindustrialisation of the economy, the rapid privatisation of nationalised industries, the shattering of organised labour, growing unemployment, the hollowing-out of mining and other working-class communities, and a steady increase in social inequality in British society. It marked, in a word, the end of twentieth-century Britain and the ushering in of twenty-first century Britain characterised by speculative capitalism, the dismantling of workers’ protections and the rise of the gig economy.
And yet, out of the strike came a rebirth in many ways. While many former miners faced unemployment, others went back to college and requalified for new professions. Miners’ wives, in even greater numbers, returned to education and became teachers, social workers or probation officers. The children of mining families, brought up during and after the strike, made the fullest use of the expansion of the university sector. The strike had politicised mining families and encouraged many of them to become involved in other causes, to become local councillors or even MPs. And while the pits closed, the heritage of the mining industry was preserved through mining museums, the revival of banner-making for the Durham miners’ gala, and the political struggle continues through the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.
The approach of this book is threefold. First of all, it looks at the strike through three lenses, class, community and family. Secondly, it is a local and regional approach, a close study of certain mining communities in the context of their region. Thirdly, it is an oral history approach, using interviews with a number of key miners, miners’ wives and supporters to allow the story of the strike to be told through the rich experiences of a selected cast of characters.
- class, community and family.
Miners forged their sense of themselves as the shock troops of the Industrial Revolution. They were the bringers of fire who enabled steam locomotion, iron and steel production, engineering, railways and transcontinental shipping. Their underground work was elemental, as they pitted themselves against earth, air, fire and water, and highly dangerous. Rock falls, gas explosions, flooding and injuries from moving machinery were all too frequent and often took many lives. Camaraderie was a watchword: they looked out for each other in the dangerous work below; their lives depended on it.
As much as they were producers, the quintessential homo faber, above ground miners were also fighters. They were all members of the union, which took care of their pay and pension and organised compensation in the event of injury or industrial sickness. The strike was the miners’ main weapon, and immediately provoked confrontation with employers, who were also ready to use the lockout to break miners’ resistance. Flying pickets like military detachments were organised to force out miners at other pits. Never to cross a picket line was a question of honour. The worst insults were used against strike-breakers – blacklegs, scabs – and at the limit violence was used against them. The tragedy of the Miners’ Strike was that picketing did less to unite the strikers than to divide them.
An alternative source of miners’ solidarity derived from the communities they lived in. These communities were often at some distance from towns and cities with their concentrations of other workers. The comradeship of miners developed underground continued about ground – slaking their thirst in the Miners’ Welfare, playing football or rugby, meeting local girls at the Welfare or rugby club. Meanwhile the mining community policed itself. Men and women were required to behave according to certain norms, and if children misbehaved their parents would know about it by the time they got home. From the 1960s, however, as pit closures set in, miners were redeployed to more efficient mines outside their area. They became travelling miners, living in villages which had a large proportion of miners but transported to the pit by bus or increasingly driving their own cars. In other cases, particularly in the Midlands, the mining village scarcely existed. Miners lived scattered across a wide radius and this clearly diminished camaraderie and solidarity.
Wherever they lived, of course, miners had miners’ families. They generally married young and had many of children. Their job was considered one for life and the pay was customarily a family wage. Often the first child was conceived out of wedlock, making marriage necessary; to abandon the pregnant girlfriend was not an option in mining communities. Miners had to demonstrate their masculinity. This was defined by being a breadwinner, a fighter, and a man who controlled his womenfolk. Miners were men; the only women employed at the pit were cooks, cleaners or office staff. However, the setup was more matriarchal than might be imagined. Women ran the home and often took control of the pay packet, giving their man pocket money for drink and cigarettes. During the strike women came into their own, as we have seen, organising and staffing support groups, setting up soup kitchens, packing food parcels, raising funds, speaking in public, even joining picket lines. Many women emerged from the strike in a much stronger place that their husbands who had lost the fight and would soon lose their jobs. If the miners’ wife did well, generally the children also did well, going to university and getting a professional job. There are signs, however, that this was gendered too, with daughters of miners doing better than their brothers.
- a local and regional history
The intention at the outset of the project, was to focus on a fixed number of mining villages, one for each coalfield. These mining villages will as far as possible be at the centre of the study, but the fact that as pits closed miners moved to other pits and sometimes moved house too meant that the ‘pit village’ was far from universal. A wider context needs to be adopted in which the mining villages provide the foci but across which the connections are often much wider.
In South Wales, the initial focus is on Onllwyn, at the head of the Dulais Valley. Here, however, the pit closed in 1962 so the miners worked further afield, down the Dulais Valley to Blaenant and Treforgan collieries, into the Swansea Valley at Abernant or over to Aberpergwm in the Neath Valley. Onllwyn stood at the intersection between ‘Welsh Wales,’ farming, rural and Welsh-speaking and ‘American Wales’, industrial, urbanised and English-speaking. In the former the Swansea, Dulais and Neath Valleys flowed south and west to the coast at Swansea and Neath. In the much-bleaker ‘American Wales’ the large and small Rhondda Valleys, the Cynon Valley and Taff Vale flowed east and south to their junction at Pontypridd, the regional capital of the NUM, and on to the sea at Cardiff. The Afan Valley flowing east to west to Port Talbot, provided something of a link between them.
In South Yorkshire, the focus is on Askern, a mining village to the north of Doncaster, where the pit functioned until 1991. However, Doncaster was the centre of an arc of pits including Bentley Hatfield. Around Barnsley in the west, the base of the Yorkshire miners, was a constellation of pits including Worsborough, Dodworth, Gawber, Woolley, Grimethorpe and South Elmsall. Sheffield, in the south, was the national headquarters of the NUM but mainly a steel town and a cosmopolitan regional capital, a focus for activists who supported the Miners’ Strike rather than of miners themselves.
In County Durham the focus is on Chester-le-Street, where the pits at Pelton Fell and South Pelaw closed in the 1960s but which acted as a turntable between the inland plateau and the coastal area. On the inland plateau there were mining communities around the steel town of Consett in the north-west and Durham City in the centre. But the pits in these areas closed in the 1960s and 1970s so that miners travelled from here to the surviving pits on the coast, some of which actually tunnelled under the sea, at Seaham, Easington and Horden.
In Nottinghamshire, where most of the miners did not come out on strike, a distinction has to be drawn between the more militant pits in the north of the county, bordering Yorkshire, such as Manton and Warsop Main, and pits further south, such as Annesley, where there was much less support for the strike. One theory to be tested is that the miners who continued working had arrived more recently in the coalfield or did not come from mining families and thus had less conception of solidarity. Even further south, in Leicestershire, only thirty miners went on strike but became some of the most active missionaries of the strike nation-wide, nicknamed The Dirty Thirty.
In Scotland, the focus will be on the town of Cowdenbeath in Central Fife, known as ‘the Chicago of Fife’, in turn at the heart of a series of mining villages such as Limphinnans, Kitty, Lochgelly and Lochore, which had the reputation of being ‘little Moscows’ because of the strength of the Communist party there in the 1920s and 1930s. The pits in the area closed in the 1960s, leaving Cowdenbeath with only an NUM workshop, so that as in County Durham miners from Central Fife travelled to the coastal collieries of Seafield and Frances to work, but the headquarters of the strike and support group remained at Cowdenbeath.
- an oral history
The study draws on about 125 life-history interviews undertaken in 2019-21 with former miners, miners’ wives, miners’ children and members of support groups. Two permissions have been secured from the interviewees, one that I may use the interviews for the current project, the to authorise the British Library to archive them in its oral history collection. From these interviews I shall be selecting about fifty for extensive use in the book.
The life-history interview makes it possible to explore both the political and the personal, the public and the private, in the testimony of the interviewees. It is important to know about the family background, education, employment history and personal lives of the activists in order to provide a context for their activism. The life-history format provides a narrative arc beginning with lives before the strike, moving to lives during the strike to and concluding with lives after the strike. We discover how individuals became involved in the strike, what strike and support action they were engaged in and what happened to them afterwards. Each testimony is different but patterns emerge in their biographies. For the period after the strike two dominant narratives are in tension. One is that the loss of the strike and subsequent loss of mining jobs put families under huge stress, hollowed out communities and replaced the organised working class by an unorganised precariat. Another is that after the strike former miners, miners’ wives and children reinvented themselves, furthering their education, finding other occupations, becoming involved in other political and social causes, curating the heritage of the mining industry. This book traces these competing narratives at the level of individuals but also seeks to ascertain which narratives dominate at the regional level: stories of triumph, stories of regeneration, stories of fragmentation and failure.
The interviews will be archived in due course by the British Library.